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More on Digital Rights Management

Here's today's gedankenexperiment:

Imagine that an inventor creates a machine that accepts as input hardcover books and generates fully-formatted PDF versions of them, ready for dissemination over the Internet. Imagine that this machine becomes popular and people can find pretty much any book, new or old, that they want over P2P networks. What would the effect be on book sales? What would the effect be on book authorship? This is analogous to the situation we face with music today, and will face with video very soon.

Actually, this analogy isn't quite strong enough. For it to fully match the situation with CDs today, we have to imagine that virtually all modern PCs incorporate not only book converters as described above, but include also printers capable of making perfect books from PDF files in about 20 minutes, for less than $1 each.

I've made this argument in a private discussion group, and the reaction in part seems to be that I'm taking the side of the movie studios and record labels. I'm most emphatically not. Whatever I may think of the actions of these entities does not obscure the core issue, and that is how artists will be paid for their works in the future. If the answer is that everything becomes shareware, then I submit that neither the creators nor the consumers of content may care for the resulting world in which they live.

Given this, how do we solve the problem of protecting intellectual property on the Internet? I don't know. I'm struggling to come up with alternatives that:

  • Do not rely on legislative solutions
  • Do not rely on judicial solutions
  • Do not restrict the use of technology by consumers
  • Preserve the rights of intellectual property owners
  • Enhance the rights of the artists themselves
  • Protect the privacy rights of consumers
I hope and believe there is a way forward enabling content creators and owners to choose how their intellectual property is distributed and used over the Internet. Such a solution should even the playing field by making it easier for individuals to compete by licensing their own content through as few middlemen as possible. Such a solution must be devised and agreed to by all the stakeholders, and its ultimate success must be based not on government diktat but on the free market choices of businesses and consumers.

In saying this, I recognize that to simply transfer a version of today's commonly-used content marketing and distribution systems to the Internet is not necessarily a giant leap forward. As Courtney Love explained:

What is piracy? Piracy is the act of stealing an artist's work without any intention of paying for it. I'm not talking about Napster-type software.

I'm talking about major label recording contracts.

Let us treat the Internet not as a threat to intellectual property, but as an opportunity to redefine how intellectual property is marketed and distributed. At the same time, let us recognize that intellectual property is just that -- property -- and its protection is in the interest of not only its creators and distributors, but of the public at large.

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